BIG BILL'S RIDE-AT-YOUR-OWN-RISK THRILLS
San Fernando Valley, 1971
There she goes. Leslie’s skirt flips over her head and I can see she’s wearing her Sunday panties even though it’s Friday.
Leslie figured out how to hang by her knees on the monkey bars back in first grade and it was no big deal. Now that we’re in fourth grade, Dwayne and Cameron sit on the lower bars and stare. They study the sheen of tiny white hairs on her legs, how her knees go glassy with gravity against the bar. They watch her like an eclipse, their eyes burning, unable to look away.
“Been on The Hammer?” Cameron asks. “Every time we went upside-down all the dimes fell outta my pockets.”
Leslie says, “My brother and I got stuck that way for an hour!”
“An hour?” Dwayne scrunches up his face, thinking it over. “Liar.”
Leslie mostly lies. “Yeah, well, it seemed like an hour with him yelling I'm gonna upchuck! in my ear a hundred times.”
I finger the tassels on the poncho Nana crocheted for me, listening. Usually I feel safe on top of the monkey bars, but when Leslie hangs upside down like this I’m afraid pretty soon Cameron and Dwayne will start thinking about my panties, which are white with little rosebuds on them, not informative like Leslie’s, whose panties are practically a calendar.
Don’t ever show your panties! I can hear Nana saying in my head. You’ll go straight to Hell—not the regular Hell, the Bad Little Girls Hell. Know what happens there? You’ll hear kittens crying for you behind a door, but the door has no knob. You’ll see other Bad Little Girls playing with each other, but they won’t play with you. All you’ll have to play with is an Etch-A-Sketch that no matter how you turn the knobs, won’t make a mark. So do you hear me? Don’t show your panties!
I pull the middle of my dress up between my legs, like culottes.
“What a prude!” Cameron and Dwayne laugh, then slip through the bars and run off toward the swings.
Leslie watches them go. “You are,” she says, wrapping her legs around the pole. “Such a prude.” She slides down, hitting the dirt hard with her bottom, then lifts her dress all the way up to her waist to brush off.
Halfway through kindergarten, when Leslie started school here, I was her first friend. We spent entire recesses playing princess and flying together on the swings. One Saturday her mom dropped her off to play at my house. I tried to keep us away from Nana, but she cornered us with Bosco milkshakes and started in on her stories.
“Helen was not the easiest child to potty-train,” Nana told Leslie before I could stop her. “She didn’t want to give up her poop. She held it inside as long as she could—too long for her own good, if you ask me. I once heard about a child who was out riding her bicycle and wouldn’t stop to go potty. Too much fun! No time to stop! Well, she fell off her bicycle and her intestines burst inside her and poisoned her to death.”
I felt the milkshake expand in my throat, closing it off and trapping a scream. Leslie’s straw rattled as she sucked up the last syrupy bit of her shake. She didn’t look at Nana—who was at least wearing her false teeth but no bra, so the buttons of her blouse strained at the waist. Leslie just looked at her empty glass. And that’s how she’s acted toward me ever since—empty.
* * *
Last year when Big Bill’s carnival unpacked itself in the Hughes Market parking lot, my parents and I drove by on the way home from dinner. I could make out a Hammer, a Tilt-A-Whirl, a Fun House, some baby rides—little fish you sit in that just go in a circle—and a miniature train.
“Can we go?” I asked in the direction of the front seat. “You said maybe when I got older.”
My parents held their familiar positions - two halos of brownish hair hovering against leather headrests—combed and controlled with sprays and tonics, not a hair astray.
“We said the carnival was for older children,” my mother said, looking straight ahead. “We never said you could go.”
My father yelled at cars: “Damn idiot. See that? Left turn and no signal.”
“She wants to go to the carnival,” my mother said.
“Tell her forget it. Too damn dirty. Rides aren’t safe. Whole thing’s held together with three screws. See that roller coaster? Couple years ago some girl stood up and got decapitated.”
I turned my head to find a miniature roller coaster framed in the opera window of my father’s Thunderbird. Chains of lights raced along its rails. It looked like a sapphire and ruby necklace resting in a mirrored jewel box.
“Decapitated how?” I asked.
“It may have been another town,” my mother admitted. “But they’re all the same. Dangerous and dirty, teenagers running loose. Who knows what all goes on there.”
“Everyone’s going. Monday they’ll all be talking about it.”
My father found me in the rearview mirror. “Did you hear? No. Now quit your whining.”
The force of the no rippled from the front seat to the back like a sonic boom.
“I’m such a weirdo.”
“That’s enough!” My mother turned and gave me her bad face.
The carnival receded into the distance. I took one last look as we rounded the corner, memorized the color of the sky and later found its name on a crayon—heliotrope. I imagined a ride called The Heliotrope at Big Bill’s—a big wheel with soft seats latched tight with padded safety bars. At first it moves slowly—a sleepy rocking motion—then it begins to whip around, moving in directions you don’t expect but are somehow ready for. The thrill of it accelerates through your body, reverberates in your bones, and ripples against your skin. It shakes loose all the thoughts in your skull, until there is only the blind, clean promise of possibility.
* * *
Leslie kicks my seat and drops a note on the floor. I catch the edge of it with my shoe and drag it under my desk. When I lean down to pick it up, Mrs. Kimball makes a screeching sound with the chalk, and awful chills come over me. The note says: 2-nite my brother is taking me to the carnival! I'd invite U but I know your not allowed. 2 bad.
I know the note is a taunt but I can’t stop the fantasy that floods forth with it—Leslie and me zigzagging across the neon-streaked asphalt, the wind lifting our hair. Wagging our tongues at each other—sweet and magenta from cotton candy—and riding on ride after ride, screaming.
“Helen, will you come up and do this problem for the class, please?”
Mrs. Kimball kept her eye on me. Maybe she was afraid I'd turn bad by being friends with Leslie—trying to be friends with Leslie.
The chalk is new, and even I make those shrill sounds, all the while trying not to. Some of the kids in front start to moan—when I glance over my shoulder they get louder, holding their ears and falling out of their chairs. Mrs. Kimball taps on her desk. I turn back to the blackboard, which spreads out like a big green ocean from this close up. There are smooth, shiny places where the board got washed last night, and cloudy places like islands where Mrs. Kimball has been erasing. This problem is on a shiny part of the board, the numbers stand out crisp and white. The problem is division, which isn’t that tough. That’s what Mrs. Kimball told us at the beginning of fourth grade—you already know everything you need to know to do division, it’s just multiplication, addition and subtraction. The math is easy, the hard part is making the numbers big enough and straight enough, without sloping to one side near the end of the problem. I remember the first time I did a problem on the board and had to stare at it for the rest of class, all my numbers sloping down, like they were melting.
“Thank you, Helen,” Mrs. Kimball says. She seems to take for granted that I’ll get it right. When I sit down, Leslie mimics her in a voice just big enough to fit inside my ear: “Thank you, Helen.”
That small whisper gets inside me the way my father’s yelling and Nana’s stories and my mother’s thick silence do at home. I can feel Leslie’s whisper boring into my head like an earwig, and once inside, riding around in my body, roller-coasting along my bones and careening through my veins. Finally it funnels down to the bottom of my stomach, where I keep all my stuck screams. Sometimes when I’m swimming I scream underwater, and pop up quick expecting to find my scream break the surface and reverberate against the water, bouncing along the coping and getting everyone’s attention. By the time I surface and shake the water out of my ears, all I hear is the dim echo of the pool lapping against the tiles.
I slouch down and stretch my arms out in front of me across the Formica desktop. I have on a sleeveless top, and the Formica is cool against my skin. I notice that my arms have a nice shape stretched out this way. Kitty-corner from me, I can see the back of Brian's head, and one ear. I picture riding on the Tilt-A-Whirl with Brian, with my arms stretched out like this, holding on to the bar in front, getting smashed up against Brian on the ride, not being able to do anything about it.
I think about the carnival as if I'm able to go, but pretty soon I remember I can't.
Then the bell rings.
* * *
I'm the last one the bus driver drops off, and the first one to be picked up, because we live farthest away. I live in one of the older tracts, in a pink stucco house at the end of a long driveway. Nana moved in with us when I was born, to watch me while my parents go to work. But most of the time, she’s not really watching. She’s busy peeping out windows or leaning on the neighbor’s wall, telling her stories. She also cleans the house somewhat and watches her programs with her teeth wrapped in a Kleenex beside her. Or she sits in the back room, fingering glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and whispering to God.
The bus driver's name is Pablo. He also teaches Spanish to the upper grades, and his girlfriend is the swim coach. He told me he's going to marry her someday, and said, “Silencio por favor, don't tell anybody.” I haven't, because I like watching her yell and blow her whistle when I walk by the pool, knowing that I am the only one picturing her in a wedding dress.
When Pablo drops me off he stops the bus a few houses away, afraid Nana will wedge herself inside the folding door and tell her stories if she has a chance. One time she slipped into the doorway before I could get out and told Pablo about some Mexican jumping beans a friend brought back from Tijuana. Pablo held the door open to be polite while I balanced on the edge of the front row seat, hanging onto the safety pole and smelling the egg salad and baloney-smelling air of the bus—stuck.
“How do you grow those beans?” she wanted to know. “Or do all the beans down there have worms? I heard about a woman who swallowed some by mistake, and those worms lived inside of her for years. Just like tapeworms. Only these didn’t grow thirty feet long like a tapeworm; they grew, yes, but mostly they traveled around inside her, until she couldn’t eat enough to feed them, and they started to eat her. Well, they ate her right to death. I think I still have some of those Mexican jumping beans in my dresser drawer. They came in a cute little box.”
Pablo kept the engine idling that time and ended up having to slowly let the bus creep into gear with Nana walking alongside, leaning against the door, still talking. She tripped a bit on the curb, and when she looked down to see if she’d lost a slipper, I pushed past her and got out. Pablo pulled the door closed quick and made his getaway.
On Fridays Pablo sometimes stops at McDonald's and if I have a quarter I can get fries and a Coke. He knows on Fridays both my parents work late and Nana only has to make creamed herring and potato pancakes for dinner, so she has time to say her rosary before we eat. If I get back a little late, chances are she won’t be peeping out the window, watching for the bus.
Today, after everyone else is dropped off, Pablo asks me in the mirror if I'm going to the carnival. I shake my head no, and say I've never been.
“My parents think it's dirty. And the rides aren't safe.”
“I been going to Big Bill's since I was a kid your age and before that,” Pablo says.
He talks about the games where you can throw a ping-pong ball into a fish bowl and win a fish, about the corn dogs, the rides. The way he sounds I think he's ready to go there right now. I get a chill like chalk scratching, and I must have stopped listening to him for a second because all of a sudden he's laughing and looking for a place to turn around.
“Never been to Big Bill's!” he says.
The bus goes over a lot of bumps, and I'm hanging onto my Peanuts lunchbox so tight my arm falls asleep. As much as I want to go to Big Bill's, the feeling of not being allowed is such a panicky feeling that all my thoughts get jumbled in my throat. I can’t, I’ll get in trouble is so tangled up with please, please, I want to so bad that I end up not saying a word.
We pull into the parking lot near Hughes Market, and I look for my mom's car even though I know she's at work. What if somebody else sees me, and tells her?
The bus stops and Pablo opens the door.
“What's the matter?” he says, still smiling. I guess because I haven't moved.
“I don't have any money.” Which isn't true, but since Leslie lies all the time and gets away with it, it must be okay to at least lie sometimes.
Pablo jingles his pocket. “Hey, I got lots. You can pay me back later. C'mon.”
For some reason I decide to carry my lunchbox with me.
I wonder who else will be at the carnival. Leslie and her brother? Cameron and Dwayne? Brian? Some kids go after dinner (the ones who brag about upchucking on Monday) but most go right after school. I wonder if I should hold Pablo's hand so I don't get lost, but what if his girlfriend sees us?
“Want to play some games?” Sure enough, here is the fishbowl game. We watch a minute while kids stick their tongues out for good aim and pitch ping-pong balls, which bounce across the edges of the bowls then onto the ground. The bowls all have goldfish swimming, but some of the fish, one or two, are floating upside down. Wouldn't it be awful to win a dead fish? I picture carrying around a bag with a dead fish in it, and Leslie finding me and making fun. Dead fish! Leave it to Helen to win a dead fish!
Pablo hands me three balls, which he bought for a dime.
“Go on, Chiquita. Nice and easy.”
I concentrate hard, and toss the ball. It doesn't even get near the bowls.
The carnival man lets me try again. “Give it a little more arm, Cupcake,” he says, smiling. He has only three teeth that I can see.
In the middle of all the bowls there’s a taller fishbowl with a fancy, fantailed fish in it. This must be the hardest to get. I aim right for it. The ball bounces all around, then onto the ground like the others.
“Here,” Pablo says. “There's a trick to it.” He holds the ball in his hand like a marble and flicks it low over the bowls with his thumb. It skims the top of the bowls and nearly goes in.
“Ooooooh,” some of the kids say, it was so close.
“You try,” he says, and holds my lunchbox for me.
I hold the ball like he did. It's hard because my hand is smaller. I flick it, and the ball lands in the middle bowl with the beautiful fantail fish. I get chills again, but in a good way, not the chalkboard kind.
“Yay!” some of the other kids yell.
“Ay-ay-ay-ay-yi-iii!” Pablo yells.
The man with three teeth scoops the fish into a baggie filled with water and ties it with a twist-tie. “Take good care of her. She's my favorite,” he says, handing me the fish.
Some of the other kids crowd around to look. “Ooooh, she's pretty,” they say.
“¡Qué buena pescadorita!”Pablo says. “What a good little fisherman!”
We walk deeper into the carnival, my feet sticking to the asphalt, goopy from cotton candy and spilled Cokes. I hang on tight to my lunchbox and my fish as we weave through the crowd.
“See, Big Bill's isn't dirty,” Pablo says.
That makes me think of my parents, but after winning the fish I’m glad to be at the carnival. I earned this fish. I won it, all by myself. I find a pocket in the back of my mind and tuck my parents there for now.
Pablo buys a ticket for the Ferris wheel. “Been on this before?”
I shake my head. From up close the ride is like a skeleton, spindly metal parts held together with not much more than three screws. I can imagine it collapsing into a heap, like Tinker Toys dumped out of the can.
“You scared?” Pablo asks. “Just say a Hail Mary, you’ll be okay.”
The seat is made of metal mesh that doesn’t seem enough to hold us—I’m not sure what’s stopping us from passing right through it like a sieve. I feel like I have to believe in the ride in order for it to work.
As the next riders get on, our seat moves up and away from the ground. I can look through the water in the fish bag and see the asphalt below.
“Hey, watch you don’t turn that into a flying fish.” Pablo takes the bag and points into the distance. “Bet we can see your house from here.”
We rise higher and higher, all the way to the top. I wonder if Nana can see me—
glance up from hanging her billowy nylon underwear and complicated bras on the clothesline—and see me here, way up in the sky. She’ll drop her teeth onto the dichondra but she’ll have a story ready for my parents—Helen got herself kidnapped today by that Mexican bus driver. They ran off to the carnival and now he’s on his way to Tijuana with her.
I think about running off with Pablo. Maybe he’ll miss his girlfriend—I know all about their plans for the wedding, the house they’ll buy, the kids they’ll have. My favorite time of day is riding alone in the bus with him, feeling the cool metal of my lunchbox against my skin, and listening to him talk about how it’s going to be.
The fish’s fins flash orange and pink in the bag. I look out past my house, past Nana and the clothesline, over the roofs of other tracts—deep into the future. I look toward a place where I can do things I never knew I could do. Things I was never allowed to try. My feet dangle in the air, and I notice that the future feels lighter, more buoyant.
Coming off the Ferris wheel, we run into Leslie and her brother.
“Ummmmmmnnnn! Oh, my god!” Leslie says, sounding like she's going to tell on me, as soon as she can find someone to tell. “How come you're here with Señor Moreno? Is he your boyfriend?”
“No!” I say. Pablo laughs.
“C'mon,” Leslie's brother says, rolling his eyes like he does.
“I saw Brian here. What if he sees you with Señor Moreno?”
“What do you think, Helen?” Pablo says. “Maybe we’ll show him your fish.”
I look up at Pablo. He looks back at me so matter-of-factly that I feel suddenly okay, even normal.
Leslie glances between Pablo and me. “We're going on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Where’re you guys going, the Tunnel of Love?”
“Want to go on the Tilt-A-Whirl with your friends?” Pablo asks me. “I'll hold your fish for you.”
Pablo takes my fish and Leslie and her brother run toward the ride. I follow with my lunchbox banging against my leg, trying to catch up.
“I'll hold your fish for you,”Leslie mimics once we're in line. “Pablo loves you. Pablo and Helen are in love.”
“Are not.” I wish Leslie would just stop, because inside I’m hoping this is what love might mean—that the more you let a person know you, the more normal they make you feel.
“C'mon,”her brother says, shoving us up the rickety stairs. The platform of the ride is made of wood that moves as we walk. We dip up and down to an empty car and all squeeze in. The seats and safety bar are covered with old gum, layers of it, practically fossilized.
There's no place for my lunchbox.
“Brought your lunchbox,” Leslie says. “What a weirdo.”
There are noises like chains rattling and gears that need oiling, and the ride starts. I hold onto the bar with my lunchbox squeezed between my knees. Leslie starts screaming in my ear before the ride is even going fast. Her brother makes a howling sound like a coyote. I wonder what sort of noise I should make.
For a while as we spin around I can see Pablo standing and watching with my fish. Even though he's all blurry, I can see his blue shirt and his dark hair and his moustache in between. Most of the time we're just going in circles, then once in a while we hit a dip and spin really fast. This is when Leslie and her brother get jammed up against me, and my lunchbox is practically crushed inside my knees.
I want to scream, but there’s Nana in my head saying, What if your face froze like that? I heard of a girl who made a horrible face at her grandmother and her face did freeze. She had plastic surgery over and over to fix it but it just got worse, like a Halloween mask. She ended up having to work in a Wax Museum. She had to sit still all day long.
The ride is pinching and bruising and I wonder if everyone else’s screams are from the pain of it. I’m so full of swallowed screams—like Mexican jumping beans growing inside me—I’m afraid they’ll start to eat me if I don’t let them out.
For a moment our Tilt-A-Whirl bucket hovers suspended at the crest of a curve. The weightlessness of arrested animation gives me the sense that I get to decide this time; that it’s up to me which way we’ll spin.
Now the lights of the ride smear and blur into crayon colors, and suddenly I’m riding The Heliotrope. I can feel my insides swirling around and bumping up against my bones, like they’re being rearranged, put back where they belong. The thoughts that crowd my brain empty out through the ends of my hair and fly off into twilight.
It’s safe for me to scream. I open my mouth and the sound that comes out is small at first, like a hiccup stuck in my throat. Then my body hollows out and loosens screams caught between my bones, screams that wedged in my stomach and made it ache, silent screams that hurt my ears but no one wanted to hear. The sound that comes out is not only my voice, but all my underwater screams breaking the surface of the pools that trapped them.
My screams harmonize with Leslie’s. She glances over at me, takes a quick breath, and pushes another huge scream past her smiling teeth.
When the ride slows down, my body is tingling. Everyone walks funny coming off the ride, but I feel taller, and more intact.
Leslie's brother walks a bit sideways, in a hurry. “C'mon, let's go on The Hammer.”
I look for Pablo.
Leslie tugs on me.
“Wait,” I say.
“What for? Your Latin lover? Want to go on The Hammer or not?”
My feet don’t move.
“C'mon!” Leslie's brother says one last time, and pulls her off toward The Hammer.
It's almost dark now. Lights swirl against a purple sky and the screams keep coming, along with the grinding of the rides and the smell of burnt popcorn and gasoline. I look where Pablo was waiting, and he’s gone.
In my head I hear Mrs. Kimball say, You already know everything you need to know. Maybe she was talking about math, but I like the sound of her words.
You already know everything you need to know. I close my eyes for a second and reach deep into my body for that whirling sensation, that Heliotrope feeling. I think about what I already know, and let everything else spin away into infinity. Right away I know Nana is at home in the back room, curtains drawn against the dark, rattling her rosary and making her bargains with God. The next moment it’s like I don’t know anything, then the blankness sharpens. I know—in a maybe sort of way—that the fish bag sprung a leak, and Pablo went to fix it. Then I know in a more knowing way that Mrs. Kimball will let me keep the fish in the classroom, and we can all take turns feeding it. And I know that even though it’s late, it’s Friday, and I’ll still get home before my parents.
I stand by the Tilt-A-Whirl, hugging my lunchbox to my chest, running my thumb over the characters' faces on the front—which stick out just enough for me to tell who they are. Lucy, I can tell by the hair. Charlie Brown, I can tell by no hair. Snoopy, I can tell by the tail. I keep running my thumb across Snoopy's tail. Even though people bump up against me and push me out of the way, I stay underneath the sign that says Tilt-A-Whirl in tiny yellow lights, waiting for Pablo.
A member of WGAw, Karen Kasaba’s work as a playwright and screenwriter has earned multiple awards including an Emmy nomination. Her stories, essays and articles have appeared in Santa Barbara Magazine (Fiction Competition Winner), Hawai'i Review, Chariton Review, The Summerset Review, Red Wheelbarrow, collectedstories.com, American Cinematographer, Westways, Byline, Los Angeles Times, and the Santa Barbara Independent, among others. She has completed a novel, The Color of Ordinary Time, and is at work on a second.